Mystery Machine, by Bob Connally

14 Feb

At the age of 12, Abe Applebaum solved “The Case of the Missing Fundraiser Money.” This led to a career as a kid detective, solving mostly minor cases for his classmates in his small town of Willowbrook, becoming a local celebrity. His secretary, Gracie, “worked for soda pop.” When they were 14, Gracie was kidnapped and Abe felt the weight of expectation to bring her home. Nearly 20 years later, Abe (Adam Brody) is still a detective with his own office in Willowbrook. Sadly though, Abe sees himself as an utter failure for not finding Gracie and the people of the town are no longer impressed by his past achievements.

Abe’s parents constantly worry about him and his goth twentysomething secretary, Lucy (Sarah Sutherland, Veep) has no respect for him. His current cases are much like the ones he took on at 12: finding missing cats, investigating if a kid was lying about practicing with the New York Mets. Those kinds of things. But Abe is about to have the opportunity to truly prove himself when high school student Caroline (Sophie Nelisse) asks him to solve the murder of her boyfriend, something the local police have gotten nowhere with. His parents disapprove of Abe taking this on but he drunkenly counters with “I’ve solved over 200 mysteries!” Moments like this are what really make The Kid Detective work so well. Abe’s use, as an adult, of the word “mysteries” (and his emphasis on it as opposed to “cases”) is indicative of the very specific and dry comedic tone writer-director Evan Morgan is going for in his debut feature.

As it is a debut feature, one might expect some rough edges and some moments that don’t really land, but there’s really not much to even nitpick here. Morgan was wise to cast Brody as Abe because regardless of how pathetic he may be, we like and sympathize with him. Clearly, that is what Morgan is hoping for, as we can’t help but feel for Abe that he never could find Gracie and how those unfair expectations crushed him. There’s a real heart to The Kid Detective which makes it much more than just the story of a has-been who peaked in junior high school. It is also important we like Abe so that we never doubt his intentions, given how much time he still spends around teenagers or in a scene that is too funny to spoil.

Morgan also does a terrific job of setting things up and paying them off later, whether those are elements of the murder case or more subtle comedic moments. His screenplay is as tight as it is funny and Morgan carries that over into his well-paced and sure-handed direction. There is just enough style here to make Abe’s world interesting but Morgan doesn’t push that harder than necessary. There’s no meaningless showing off here.

The whole cast does fine work here, but Brody is in practically every scene after the opening and he’s excellent throughout. Brody has been acting professionally since he was a teenager, consistently getting work but not really getting many opportunities to break out since playing Seth Cohen on The O.C., which ended in 2007. Brody’s performance on that series was what really hooked viewers like me who would have otherwise ignored “another pretty rich kids show.” He seemed poised to be a huge comedy star once The O.C. ended but despite continuing to work, he never became what I thought he deserved to become. After a fantastic turn in 2019’s Ready or Not, he takes center stage here and brings all of Abe’s pain and frustration to life while also deftly handling the dry comedy. It would probably be easy to lean a little too much into the comedic aspects or conversely the dramatic side of a character like Abe, but Brody gets it just right. I won’t go so far as to say there are parallels between Brody’s real life and Abe’s, but Brody may have tapped into something there, at least a little.

Together, Morgan and Brody perfectly handle the dark dramatic shifts The Kid Detective occasionally takes, particularly in its third act. Ultimately, this is a murder mystery after all. If Abe’s pain is real the movie must take the murder seriously as well.

At 100 minutes, The Kid Detective flies by and every moment is a pleasure to watch. This is a wonderfully entertaining and engaging dry comedy/modern noir mystery and I can’t recommend it enough. It is currently available to rent for about $5 on services such as Vudu and Amazon Prime.

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